Nuke Waste Confidence: A Confluence of Ironies

By Kennedy Maize

Here’s an interesting set of ironies. The Republican majority on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has taken a position that, at least formally, blocks new nuclear reactors in the U.S., while the sole Democrat on the commission, Chairman Greg Jaczko, widely viewed as opposed to the agenda of the nuclear industry, has voted against the GOP majority and for a more open door to new nuclear reactors.

The formal issue is the NRC’s “waste confidence” finding. This is a legally-required ruling where the NRC must say that the U.S. has reasonable plans to store spent nuclear fuel in a way that assures public safety. A year ago, the NRC agreed that this was the case, approving a draft statement by the NRC staff. The staff ruling came in the face of serious doubts about the viability of the Yucca Mountain, Nev., project, the sole approach of the U.S. government toward spent nuclear fuel storage, other than on-site storage in cooling pools or dry casks.

In late September, the only two Republican members of the NRC – former chairman Dale Klein (a favorite of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) and Commissioner Kristine Svinicki (an aide to former Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig)– voted to reject the NRC’s staff’s draft 2008 finding, based on the decision of the Obama administration to dump the Yucca Mountain, Nev., waste dump.

That the vote was partisan is not in doubt. While Jaczko, a disciple of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has been an opponent of the Yucca Mountain project, the Republicans in the Senate and on the NRC, have supported the project.

The NRC has two vacancies, both set for Democrats, but the Obama administration has not moved to fill the. Under law, the NRC consists of three members of the president’s party, and two members of the minority party.

The NRC waste confidence ruling is necessary before U.S. companies can move forward to build new nuclear projects. The NRC in 1990 formally approved a waste confidence finding. But Klein and Svinicki voted in October to revisit the issue, given that the Obama administration has essentially pulled the funding plug on the Yucca Mountain project, providing no substantial money for the project in the Department of Energy’s latest budget proposal.

Klein, NRC chairman during the George W. Bush administration, said, “I strongly believe that the commission should give the public an opportunity to comment on whether and, if so, how the administration’s recent announcements of changes in the nation’s high-level waste repository program should affect the proposed update.” Does the public have any significant views on the Yucca Mountain issue or the nation’s nuclear waste policy? Doubtful.

Jaczko, in a separate statement a day later, said he supports the earlier, October 2008, NRC staff decision, noting that the “staff paper makes it clear that the commission’s waste confidence decision is not based on the Yucca Mountain program, but rather that safe disposal for high-level waste and spent fuel in a mined geological repository is technically feasible.”

The nuclear industry lobby treated the NRC decision as a temporary anomaly. Steve Kraft, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s chief waste lobbyist, told The Energy Daily, the NRC decision “was not something we were expecting, but it is not the end of the world.” Kraft predicted that the NRC, after getting new information, presumably from the industry, “will come up with maybe not exactly the same answer, but certainly an answer that satisfies the question, and have the rule in place fairly soon, hopefully sometime in the first quarter of 2010.”

Kraft may be spinning a desired outcome of which he has no real knowledge.

Said a long-time observer of the nuclear industry, “I’d be surprised if the NRC can deal with this issue in 2010, not just in the first quarter. Klein wants to leave the commission, the White House hasn’t come up with Democrats to fill vacant seats, and the waste issue is on the way-far-back burner, where Harry Reid wants to keep it. In the meantime, there doesn’t seem to be much interest on Wall Street in financing new nukes. Don’t hold your breath on this one.”